8

089: Jackson Browne/Maurice Williams, ‘The Load-Out/Stay’

Posted by jeff on Feb 15, 2017 in Personal, Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

LOGON Load-Out

As I’ve mentioned ad nauseam recently, I’ve been performing in a big amateur production of a Broadway musical. We do two shows a week all over the country– which is only as big as New Jersey, but hey, that was a good enough start for The Boss. Still, it’s a shlep, to go to another city twice a week after working Ye Olde Day Job, with 27 tons of equipment, giving a big show, then slinking back home very late at night. There’s a team of dedicated volunteer roadies who go in the morning, unload the truck and set up the stage. But then after the show, after greeting the fans and friends, after removing the makeup, everyone pitches in for The Load-Out. Which apparently in Show Business means what we mortals would call the load-up.

It has its own special feeling, this activity of taking apart the scene of the masque–illusion dissembled, post-applause, the adrenaline shuffling back into its pen for the night. So, of course, there’s this one song about that, and that’s what’s been on my mind and in my ears, and that’s our SoTW.

If a Martian came up to me and asked me to play some California music for him, I’d most certainly pick that most quintessential of The Angels, Jackson Browne (b. 1948).

In the 1970s, Jackson started out with a series of five spectacular singer-songwriter albums, introspective with a beat and a hook, about California-based themes such as love, opthamologists, angst and cocaine. Then he contracted acute Political Awareness, addressing himself passionately to issues such as saving the Brazilian Rain Forest Blue Bat and Integrity and Cocaine.

Daryl Hannah and Beau

I enjoy a lot of Jackson’s songs, though I think it’s criminal to mention him in the same breath with his contemporaries James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Perhaps all three were working out of the same 1970s singer-songwriter idiom, but JT and JM are major artists, and JB is a very talented pop musician. I find his best work touching, effective and affective. But even in his pre-politico preaching days, too often he’s mushy, soppy. Even swishy. But heck, he dated Daryl Hannah, so what do I know about the way these things work in LaLa Land? Anyway, we come not to bash Mr Browne, but to praise him.

The last of his personal/poetic albums was “Running on Empty” (1977), a ‘road album’—all the songs were recorded on stage or in the hotel or the bus, and/or dealt with the experience of performing on tour.

Maurice Williams and Zodiacs

Pause.

At the tender age of 15, young Maurice Williams of Lancaster, SC was busy writing songs while his friends were out stealing hubcaps (did they have hubcaps in Lancaster, SC in 1953?). At 17, he somehow got himself and his buddies an audition in Nashville, where they recorded Maurice’s ‘Little Darling’ under the name The Gladiolas. It hit #11 on the R&B charts and #41 on the pop charts, but then got covered by a white Canadian group, The Diamonds, and Maurice didn’t need to work again for the rest of his life. But he did, playing fraternity gigs around the South (well, if they had fraternity gigs they must have had hubcaps, no?), and in 1960 Maurice and his current cronies, now known as The Zodiacs, recorded another song he had written back in 1953—to the same girl! ‘Stay’ became as much of a doo-wop icon as its sister piece, and even had the distinction of being the shortest #1 hit ever, clocking in at 1:37. Over the years it was a Top 20 hit for the Four Seasons, Rufus & Chaka Khan, the Hollies, and it’s still sung regularly on Friday nights by many thousands of drunken fraternity boys on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Unpause

Jackson Browne circa 1977 would end his show (as he does the album “Running on Empty”) with a long, lovely, rambling tribute to his roadies. It’s done on solo piano, and talks about the post-show weariness, the packing up, and that lingering adrenalin that I’ve been tasting so strongly in recent weeks.  Here his band slowly rejoins him on-stage, and the song mashes into ‘just one more song’–a revisit to Maurice’s big hit, with the object of affection transformed from that unnamed Little Darlin’ to The Audience. Pretty neat, how these Californians write songs.

Here are the album versions of the combo-song. And here’s a video version from 1982 that works pretty much the same way.
, with the divine Rosemary Butler providing one short verse and David Lindley providing the Maurice Williams falsetto.

I’ve got three more shows to do next week. I’m a professional amateur. No cocaine, no groupies, just a bunch of us enthusiastic townies strutting and fretting our three hours on-stage and backstage, putting on a show and packing it up before we go home to the wife and kids.

Now the seats are all empty
Let the roadies take the stage
Pack it up and tear it down.
They’re the first to come and the last to leave,
Working for that minimum wage,
They’ll set it up in another town.
Tonight the people were so fine,
They waited there in line.
When they got up on their feet they made the show.
And that was sweet but I can hear the sound
of slamming doors and folding chairs
And that’s a sound they’ll never know.
Now roll them cases out and lift them amps
Haul them trusses down and get ’em up them ramps.
‘Cause when it comes to moving me
You know you guys are the champs.
But when that last guitar’s been packed away
You know I still want to play,
So just make sure you got it all set to go
Before you come for this piano.

 

But the band’s on the bus
And they’re waiting to go
We’ve got to drive all night and do a show in Chicago
or Detroit, I don’t know
We do so many shows in a row
And these towns all look the same.
We just pass the time in our hotel rooms
And wander ’round backstage
Till those lights come up and we hear that crowd
And we remember why we came.

 

Now we got country and western on the bus, R&B
We got disco in eight tracks and cassettes in stereo
And we’ve got rural scenes & magazines
We’ve got truckers on the CB
We’ve got Richard Pryor on the video
And we got time to think of the ones we love
While the miles roll away.
But the only time that seems too short
Is the time that we get to play.
People you’ve got the power over what we do–
You can sit there and wait or you can pull us through.
Come along, sing the song
You know that you can’t go wrong
‘Cause when that morning sun comes beating down
You’re going to wake up in your town
But we’ll be scheduled to appear
A thousand miles away from here.

People stay just a little bit longer

We want to play just a little bit longer
Now the promoter don’t mind
And the union don’t mind
If we take a little time
And we leave it all behind and sing
One more song
I want you stay just a little bit longer
Please, please, please
Say you will, say you will.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

083: Ezio Pinza, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ (“South Pacific”)
078: Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’
066: Rickie Lee Jones, ‘Skeletons’
061: The Doobie Brothers, ‘What a Fool Believes’
054: Mickey & Sylvia, ‘Love is Strange’

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11

082: Dion DiMucci, ‘Sit Down Old Friend’

Posted by jeff on Feb 1, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Dion DiMucci was born in 1939 in the Bronx, where he grew up singing on street corners (literally) with his pimply Italian cronies. At 17 he signed a record contract, and as leader of Dion & the Belmonts had a string of major hits including Teenager in Love and I Wonder Why (trust me, you want to watch this clip). He was a big enough star to share the bill with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper on their fateful winter tour of 1959. Living a life of stardom and dissolution at 20, Dion was already deep into heroin and alchohol addiction. The other three grabbed a ride on a plane to the next show in Iowa, but the $36 ticket cost as much as Dion’s parents’ monthly rent, so he chose to shlep on the bus. Shocked by their deaths, he tried rehab. He broke up the Belmonts, and his solo career continued to climb, with iconic hits such as Runaround Sue and The Wanderer, in which the lyrics were no longer the self-pity of a broken acned heart, but the racy bravado of an ego-driven superstar:

Oh well I’m the type of guy who will never settle down
Where pretty girls are well, you know that I’m around
I kiss ’em and I love’em ’cause to me they’re all the same
I hug ’em and I squeeze ’em they don’t even know my name
They call me the wanderer yeah the wanderer
I roam around around around…

That lyric was far from standard fare for 1960. He moved to a major label (Columbia), continued making hits such as Ruby Baby (in this clip from 1963 Dion is playing guitar, and is clearly an emerging artist, not just another Corner Boy punk). The song is written by Leiber and Stoller, see SoTW 042.

In the coming years he was influenced musically by such luminaries as producer Tom Wilson, executive John Hammond (the men behind Bob Dylan at the time) and keyboard legend Al Kooper, but his addictions led him astray, and he recorded nothing of significance. In 1968, clean of substances and a born-again evangelical, he returned to his original label. They insisted that he record Abraham, Martin and John (written Dick Holler, who also wrote The Royal Guardsmen’s ‘Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron’–I bet you didn’t know that!) He moved to Warner Brothers, the most successful label

of the late 1960s to record a series of singer-songwriter albums which were all commercial failures. We’ll come back to this period in a moment.

In 1975 he was joined up with Phil Spector for a project that was supposed to reboot the careers of both. Spector outdid himself in terms of grandiosity—more than 40 musicians, including a dozen guitarists, seven percussionists, and five pianists.

Only half a dozen tracks were recorded, dark, bizarre, even by Spector standards. Spector couldn’t get the resulting “Born to Be With You” released in the US. Dion disassociated himself from it. Its reputation today is mixed; some (including myself) dismiss it as a megalomaniacal bummer; others, including Stones mentor Andrew Loog Oldham and Who Pete Townshend, call it one of the finest albums ever made.

Over the past 35 years, Dion has continued recording, most frequently in an acoustic blues mode. He’s made many fine albums–modest, mature, honest, well-crafted, serious. In 1990, visiting the Bronx parish of his childhood, he experienced an epiphany and returned to Catholicism. He continues to record and perform, and works as a Renewal Ministry activist. Well, okay.

But let’s go back for a moment to 1969, to a wholly obscure Warner Brothers singer-songwriter effort, the album “Sit Down Old Friend”. I discovered the album back then when I was listening to every single major release, and quite a lot of minor ones. It’s easy to see how Dion’s album went unnoticed in that landmark year of singer-songwriter releases: Dylan’s “New Morning”, James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”, Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon”, Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush”, Van Morrison’s “Moondance”, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, Cat Stevens’ “Tea for the Tillerman”, and the first albums by Elton John, Stephen Stills, George Harrison and Paul McCartney.

But “Sit Down Old Friend” always shined for me, even in that heady company. It’s almost a demo—just Dion playing classical and steel-stringed guitar on a dozen gems, mostly self-penned. The lyrics of the title song, our Song of The Week, seem more than a bit callow. Unguardedly ingenuous, too good-hearted and sincere and embarrassingly loving. The way I’d probably feel at a spiritual retreat. But when I listen to the song, it becomes something else. Its utter sincerity overcomes all my cynicism. It forces me to remember that truisms are true. Really, what is there for us to do on this earth other than love our fellow man? So, Dion, thanks for ‘Runaround Sue’ and ‘Teenager in Love’. But ‘Sit Down Old Friend’ has never left me over the 40 years since I first made its acquaintance, and it has never failed to affect me. It’s been in my mind and my heart and my ears during not a few rough patches, and it’s lent me a steady and trustworthy arm to lean on. I’d like to give it my ultimate compliment—for me, this is life-changing music. It really does make me want to be a better person.

Sit down old friend, there’s something in my heart that I must tell you.

In the end, there is nothing but love.

Could the world be needing more than love that makes the world go round?

If everybody had it in their heart today, I’d say, to keep love in your heart you gotta give it away.

Then the world would be some great big beautiful loving smiling place,

Hey, love is really all you need to carry around.

To keep love in your heart you gotta spread it around.

I’m changing in myself and I’ve found that I don’t have to be so smart.

The last thing in the world I’d want to do is break somebody’s heart.

If it was up to me I’d gather everybody round and we’d all hold hands.

And we’d say a prayer just for today, we’d pray.

To keep love in our hearts and never let it stray, never let it slip away.

Don’t let it pass you by.

Could the world be needing more than love that makes the world go round?

Sit down old friend, there’s something in my heart that I must tell you.

In the end, there is nothing but love.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 070, Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’

SoTW 076: Roy Orbison, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’

SoTW 078, Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’

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3

249: Bobby Vee, ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’

Posted by jeff on Nov 4, 2016 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

vee-bobby-51e155b0efd19Bobby Vee, ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’

Bobby Vee (1943-2016) died last week at 73 from complications arising from Alzheimer’s. That’s pretty surprising, considering that he’s still an 18-year old pop star and I’m still a pimply 13-year old with my ear glued to a Top 40 transistor radio. They say inside every man there’s a 15-year old screaming “What the fuck happened????”

February 3, 1959, the day the music died. Fifteen year old Robert Velline was prepping to see the first rock-and-roll show to hit Fargo, ND, home of:

  • PDQ Bach (Peter Schickele)
  • Roger* Maris (did you know that Babe Ruth held the record for home runs in a single season for 34 years, and Roger* for 37?)
  • Actress Kristin Rudrüd (who played William H. Macy’s wife in the Coen brothers’ film “Fargo”, which was of course set in…).
Bad news on the doorstep

Bad news on the doorstep

But in February, 1959, rock and roll was just reaching Fargo. Bobby and a couple of friends had formed a band two weeks earlier. Bobby came home from school for lunch, and found bad news on the doorstep. Headliners Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper had been killed that night in a plane crash, on their way to Fargo.

A call went out from KFGO, Fargo’s Top 40 station. Was there a local group that could step in and help the show go on? Bobby’s mom ran out to buy the boys matching sweaters and ties, his dad came up with the name The Shadows, and the boys cram-rehearsed all the Buddy Holly songs they could play.

Though the scars of that night haven’t yet healed (see ‘American Pie’), Bobby and the boys were a hit. By June they had recorded a Bobby-penned Buddy Holly-cloned single, ‘Suzie Baby’, virtually indistinguishable from the master himself. The song went world-famous in Minnesota.

Elston Gunnn

Elston Gunn

The boys decided they needed a pianist, and auditioned a kid from Hibbing who introduced himself as Elston Gunnn, but whose real name was Bobby Zimmerman. He played a few gigs with The Shadows, then left for Omaha where he had gotten a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night.

In 2013, Elston (now more widely known as Blind Boy Grunt) was playing a show in St Paul, where he said:

“Thank you everyone, thank you friends. I lived here a while back, and since that time, I’ve played all over the world, with all kinds of people. And everybody from Mick Jagger to Madonna. And everybody in there in between. I’ve been on the stage with most of those people. But the most beautiful person I’ve ever been on the stage with, was a man who is here tonight, who used to sing a song called “Suzie Baby”. I want to say that Bobby Vee is actually here tonight. Maybe you can show your appreciation with just a round of applause. So, we’re gonna try to do this song, like I’ve done it with him before once or twice.”

Sounds fabricated? You can see it, right here. Elston also recalled that Vee “had a metallic, edgy tone to his voice and it was as musical as a silver bell.” Vee for his part remembered Elston Gunn “played pretty good in the key of C.” But we get ahead of ourselves.

Snuff and Bobby

Snuff and Bobby

The Elston-less Bobby Vee and The Shadows were signed by Liberty Records in LA and assigned to the tutelage of a Texan high-school dropout, the 19-year old Snuff Garrett. Snuff went on to work with Sonny Curtis, Johnny Burnette, Brenda Lee, Roy Rogers, Gene McDaniels, Buddy Knox, Walter Brennan, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Del Shannon, Sonny & Cher, Cher and JJ Cale. He gave Leon Russell and one Phil Spector their first jobs in the business. Walter Brennan and Phil Spector—I’m not making it up.

Snuff took Bobby to Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, NM, where Buddy had gotten his start. Their version of an old R&B cut by The Clovers (who did the original version of the Leiber-Stoller classic ‘Love Potion #9’), ‘Devil or Angel’, went to #6 nationally, as did their next single, ‘Rubber Ball’ (co-composed by Gene Pitney under his mother’s maiden name).

smthenigthasateSnuff took a shopping trip to New York to shop at the Brill Building, where he was offered a tune by the young husband-and-wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, who had just had their first #1 hit with The Shirelles’ ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’. Dion had recorded it, but wasn’t planning on releasing it. Snuff felt that the song lacked a kick, so Carole added the “My tears have fallen” intro. It sounded like this. Bobby’s version went to #1, his only one, Goffin-King’s second of many.

Bobby had 36 songs in the Top 100, mostly in the pre-Beatles early ‘60s. You’ll forgive me for not giving you all 36. Or not. But as far as I’m concerned, you’re going to have to make due with a few of my favorites:

  • Run to Him‘ – #2, written by Goffin and Jack Keller, another member of the Brill-based Aldon Music stable, which had 54 top ten songs between 1960 and 1963.
  • Sharing You‘ – Goffin-King, #15

lr-nighteyes-2blog

Both of these seem to me clearly influenced by Roy Orbison’s ‘Running Scared’ – conflicted love triangles in which the narrator is wrenched with fear and anxiety, 2’15” melodramas in a minor key, climbing single-mindedly from the tense git-go to an operatic climax without a detour into a chorus. Oh, the drama in those three songs, fantastical passions for a bored and horny 15-year old boy from the suburbs, each one grist for an entire soap.

  • Punish Her‘ – #20; don’t worry all you politico-correctnessers, you’re supposed to “kill her with kindness” and “blind her with kisses”
  • Charms‘ – #13, a charmer of a song, written by brilliant Brillers Helen Miller and Howard Greenfield
  • Be True to Yourself‘ – #34, fine advice for all seasons, Burt Bacharach and Hal David at their Brill best

And last but certainly not least in the list, my personal favorite, the song I choose to remember Bobby by:

It was kept out of the top spot by Paul & Paula’s ‘Hey Paula’ and The Rooftop Singers’ ‘Walk Right In’. Competition was stiff before The Fab Four took over.

Elvis, Weisman

Elvis, Weisman

Bobby’s ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ was written by Benjamin Weisman, Dorothy Wayne, and Marilyn Garrett. I don’t know nothin’ about the two ladies, but this is what Elvis (Presley) had to say about Mr Weisman (at a bacchanalian post-Vegas run party, shortly before The King died): “I want you all to meet Ben Weisman. The man who has written more songs for me than any other writer – 57! I want to hear it for this man”.

What can I say about it? Not too much, really. It’s a pop song. Charming and catchy. The stuff of my innocent youth. I readily admit that when I was listening to it in 1962, I didn’t visualize it like this freakish, bizarre clip. The director is uncredited, but I sure hope he wasn’t allowed out unsupervised.

night1000eyesBobby’s tune shouldn’t be confused with

  • The 1948 film noir in which Edward G. Robinson plays a New Orleans nightclub fortune teller who unwittingly becomes a psychic, bleakly predicting all sorts of mayhem.
  • Or the theme song from the movie, performed here by Harry Belafonte (with the Zoot Sims Quartet), here in a cool live clip by Stan Getz.

Bobby’s song has had numerous covers, including by Jennifer Connelly (from the movie “Dark City”, better on the eyes than on the ears) and American Idol Vegas Week, one of the ugliest, most aesthetically offensive clips I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch 8 seconds of.

So, Bobby, what shall we say in parting? R.I.P. Thanks for the hits, thanks for the mini-dramas, thanks for the memories. We’ll remember you fondly. And who knows, maybe Elston Gunnn will play ‘Suzie Baby’ or ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’, or even ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ at the ceremony in Stockholm next month.

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1

243: Ricky Nelson, “I’m Walkin'”

Posted by jeff on Aug 5, 2016 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

hqdefaultRicky Nelson, ‘I’m Walkin’

Ricky Nelson, ‘I’m Walkin’ (from “The Ozzie and Harriet Show” episode “Ricky The Drummer” at 08:00)

Don’t hold your breath waiting for a Ricky Nelson revival. He ain’t Buddy Holly. He certainly ain’t Elvis Presley. Heck, he ain’t even Pat Boone (albeit arguably).

He was a mediocre musician who had 53 Top 100 hits between 1957 and 1973, 20 of them in the Top 20; an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and one of TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time. Ricky Nelson is one of the most important singers in the annals of popular culture.

More importantly, he’s a crucial element in understanding post WWII American (i.e. world) popular culture. I’ll take that a step further. You can’t understand popular culture without understanding the Ricky Nelson story.

rockwellRicky was born in 1940, second son of big-band leader Ozzie and singer Harriet Nelson. Ozzie’s orchestra was featured on the hit radio show “The Raleigh Cigarette Hour” from 1941 till host Red Skelton was drafted in 1944. The producers then crafted the sitcom “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (we’re still talking radio, folks) in its stead. It was a hit, with head writer Ozzie spinning tales of Rockwellian domestic bliss. In 1949, Rick and brother Dave (two years older) joined the show, replacing the actors who had portrayed them till then.

In 1952, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” debuted, running until 1966, one of the longest-running sitcoms in TV history. Many of the series’ story lines were taken from the Nelsons’ real life. When the real David and Rick got married, their partners were written into the series as their girlfriends and then wives.

Ozzie, Harriet, David, Ricky in 1952 Could The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet have really been like that? Could the show have lasted all those years - some 22 seasons from its debut in 1944 on radio to its cancellation - offering nothing more relevant than programs titled "David Has a Date with Miss Universe" and "A Picture in Rick's Notebook"?

As a tween, Rick fiddled around on clarinet, guitar and drums. At 16, he was dating a teenie-bop Elvis fan. On an impulse, he told her that he was going to make a record in order to impress her. He went home and said to Ozzie, “Dad, I want to make a record.” (Unfortunately, that didn’t make it as an episode on the show.)

Already a fan of Carl Perkins and Elvis, Rick went into the studio and covered Fats Domino’s ‘I’m Walking’ (it contained the only two chords he knew how to play). He was following the pattern set by the likes of Pat Boone, who carved a great career by bleaching raunchy, authentic Black music for the lily-white audiences of mainstream radio. The original versions were thought to be too sexually suggestive for the impressionable white audiences, and were confined to de facto segregated R&B radio stations and sales charts.

 

Here’s Fats’ original ‘Ain’t That a Shame’, and Pat Boone’s version (both 1955).

Here’s Fats live in 1956.

Here’s Fats’ original ‘I’m Walkin’’ and Ricky Nelson’s very first recording (both 1957).

Just for fun (hey, what’s it been up till now??), here are Fats and Ricky singing it together, years on.

83513-74037Ozzie knew a meal ticket when he saw one. In a 1957 episode titled “Ricky the Drummer”, the lad sits in on drums with a swing band (at around 06:00). He does a creditable job, though he’s no Sammy Davis, Jr. Then at 08:00, he sings ‘I’m Walkin’’ (live). Check out the girl in the audience squealing. It hit #4 on the charts. The flip side, ‘A Teenager’s Romance’, hit #2.

Shortly after, he made an unpaid public appearance (singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky”) with the Four Preps at a high school lunch hour assembly in Los Angeles. He was greeted by hordes of screaming teens who had seen the television episode.

Thunder on the horizon.

Here you have it folks. The very first bud of spring. The first step of youth culture across network television’s Rubicon. The beginning of the end of the coherent, conservative mom & dad and two kids in the suburbs America. The beginning of the beginning of the cultural revolution we’re still in the throes of.

hqdefault (1)If you’ve ever heard of “The Ozzie and Harriet Show”, it’s probably as the icon of 1950s America—the world of Eisenhower, mortgages and Fords and good clean family living. Then came James Dean and Elvis Presley and Lee Harvey Oswald and the Nixon Doctrine in Vietnam. For baby boomers–Bob Dylan, Steven Spielberg, Bill Clinton–the Nelsons symbolized the Age of Innocence.

When asked to explain ‘The 60s’, I often tell the story of how I (and my entire generation) waited for Ricky in the 1950s (which actually lasted until November 22, 1963). We were kids, and we watched a lot of TV. But none of it was real. It was Republicans in white boxer shorts peddling their idyllic version of suburban bliss which just didn’t convince us. We wanted some grit. If you need a refresher, go rewatch “Rebel Without a Cause.”

najlepszy-westernNetwork TV was the medium for America’s self-portraiture. In 1957, it was as bland as Wonder Bread with Oleo. But every two or three weeks, at the end of an episode of “Ozzie and Harriet”, they’d let Ricky sing a song. We’d sit and wait, impatiently subjecting ourselves to what even in our tweens we perceived as the inanities of the show.

As soon as his singing career began to take off, he had the good sense to jettison his older jazz and country session musicians (who were openly contemptuous of rock and roll) and sign a band with members closer to his age, including the 18-year-old James Burton. Elvis was in the army, and the market was thirsty for ‘A Teenage Idol’ (his not-so-convincing attempt at poorlittlerichboy angst). Six years later we’d get ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’. Ricky’s song contains the line ‘I guess I’ll always be just a rolling stone.’ Ah, the irony.

Even though it was the only game in town and despite its commercial success, Ricky’s music was nothing to write home about. Here are a few of his hits as performed on his parents’ TV show—arguably the very first musical video clips.

Traveling Man’ — Check out Ozzie’s snazzy editing! This has been called ‘the first video clip’.

ricky-nelson-james-burtonHello Mary Lou’ — Perhaps plagiarized by the fine Gene Pitney (who also wrote Bobby Vee’s ‘Rubber Ball‘ and The Crystals’ ‘He’s a Rebel‘ and was the first American champion of The Rolling Stones). After “Hello Mary Lou” became a hit, legal action was taken by one Cayet Mangiaracina, who was then listed as a co-writer along with Pitney. Mangiaracina became a priest and claimed to give royalties from the song to the Southern Dominican Province near New Orleans, where he served. Pitney never spoke of Mangiaracina or the lawsuit.

Gypsy Woman’, not to be confused with the sublime ‘Gypsy Woman’ by Curtis Mayfield’s Impressions.

Stood Up’ — co-written  by Sharon Sheeley, whose very first song, ‘Poor Little Fool‘, was Ricky’s first #1 hit. She survived the car wreck in which her boyfriend Eddie Cochran was killed.

In 1959 he starred next to John Wayne, Walter Brennan and Dean Martin in Howard Hawkes’ classic “Rio Bravo”.

In 1961, on his 21st birthday, he legally changed his name from ‘Ricky’ to ‘Rick’. Few were convinced.

After a few minor hits, failed marriages, and a very successful run on the oldies circuit, Ricky (sorry, he’ll always be Ricky for me) died when his private plane crashed near De Kalb, Texas, on December 31, 1985.

Some critics have tried to rehabilitate Ricky’s musical reputation in recent years. They’re confusing good will with good music. Give a listen to Buddy Holly, his contemporary and stylistic cousin in those years of 1957-59. The difference is as great as the distance from Hollywood to Mars.

But I remember Ricky fondly. He may not have been the best, but he was the first. He single-handedly opened television to young music. Yes, Elvis had appeared on the Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan shows in 1956, but only as a curiosity (some said an aberration, the devil incarnate). Ricky was the first widely acceptable rock and roll singer, the harbinger of the Woodstock generation, the first crack in The Wall, the prototype of the world we still live in today.

Thanks for being understanding parents, Harriet and Ozzie. Thanks for being such a good big brother, Dave. Thanks for doing what you did, Ricky. It was well worth that half-hour wait.

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